We Don’t Fear the Future

I must admit to having been nervous to publish this. I’ve never been afraid to expose private things in my writing; if you’ve read my blog for long enough, you probably know quite a bit about me. But I’ve always been mindful to do that in a way that (I hope) is the least alienating to other people. Here, I’ve written about something predictably divisive. I’ve written about politics. This feels like a huge risk. However, this isn’t about party affiliation or who you should vote for or any particular political platform issue. This is about a philosophy of change, an idea that, like bedrock, sits so quietly underneath the chaos of the political weeds that it is often ignored despite being essential to the workings of the world. I may lose you in the first paragraph, and I’m OK with that, but I hope you’ll stick with me to the end because I want to get to a place where, even if we disagree, our debate will be at a different level, or at least a different temperature.

It turns out, we are The Establishment. And all our fussing about The Establishment we’ve been told is our enemy only strips us of the power we actually have in this Democracy.

This is an uncharacteristically optimistic view for me to hold. But it is one I have come to believe more strongly over the course of the last year. I hope you’ll bear with me as I explain.

We have Bernie Sanders to thank for making the nature and identity of The Establishment central to the political zeitgeist. (Republicans have attempted to glom on to that, and have done so with dreadful success. To wit, we face the possible election of the most despicable public figure I could possibly imagine being President. After all, Andrew Jackson has been dead for 171 years. But if the rage and vitriol gathered beneath the Republican party could resurrect Jackson’s rotten corpse instead, I imagine that, well, they’d consider their options.) But for all his commentary about The Establishment, the facts bind Bernie Sanders to it quite firmly. To review: Bernie Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1980. He served in that post until 1989. Then, Mr. Sanders was elected to the House of Representatives in 1991, where he served until his election to the Senate in 2007. Other than a few months spent lecturing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in between the mayoral office and the House, Bernie Sanders has spent the better part of thirty years working in American politics.

Think about that. Bernie Sanders decided, at the age of 39 — and for me, I think, wow, that’s just three years older than I am now — to begin a life of public service. Now, I don’t know if he thought of it that way — as beginning a life — but that’s what it has become. He has spent almost as many years as a public servant as he had been alive when he began. Eight years as mayor, six as a state representative, and nine as a senator. That’s quite a career. With a resume like that, you might even call someone established in the political machine.

So why has establishment come to be such a scarlet letter? Bernie Sanders, with almost thirty years in the political machine himself, spent months impugning Hillary Clinton’s establishment within it. Hillary Clinton’s years of establishment are similar in number to Bernie Sanders’s. She has spent 30 years in politics, 18 of which were as First Lady — first to the Governor of Arkansas and then to the President of the United States. (One could debate the political nature of the role of First Lady. I’ll pass on that. For the purposes of timing her establishment, I’m counting those years as within it, as I assume everyone else does.) She then served 8 years in the Senate and four as Secretary of State. So, like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has spent three decades in the political sphere, in more than one office. Perhaps, then, establishment’s temporal qualities aren’t what we find so objectionable. After all, if it’s about out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new, as in, let’s get some new blood in there, Bernie Sanders, a career politician, is hardly a credible spokesperson for that movement nor the best person to critique the freshness of a political colleague’s tenure. No, The Establishment’s problem is not time. And, to be fair, Bernie Sanders would probably say that it isn’t about the years.

The Establishment is a label for ideas. Ideas that conserve the status quo, if not slowly erode the ideally expanding edges of the American dream. The Establishment is the persistence of bad ideas. Supposedly. Bernie Sanders has fought not against the length of The Establishment’s hold on society, but the firmness with which it has kept society in place. Static, if not stagnant. Un-moving and unmoved by the plight of the many. Again, supposedly. But the argument is, at its core, one of ideology: The strength of The Establishment is in how firmly they — and we — hold certain ideas to be true.

But what makes for a good idea? Novelty? A good idea is often a new idea; a burst of inspired innovation that either solves a long-standing problem in an original way or, sometimes, a new problem by applying old wisdom long discounted or forgotten. At the core is change; that in doing something different, we might come closer to doing something right. The novelty of ideas offered in this particular election cycle has been debated plenty. Some are clearly new. Some are clearly old. The question is, does that matter? The debate itself demonstrates that novelty cannot be the sole measure of an idea.

What about efficacy? A good idea is one that, when applied, actually works. It solves the problem, wherever it may lie in the long, procedural process that the word “solution” often hides in its concision. Sometimes, a good idea is a beginning; it catalyzes change. Sometimes, it maintains momentum. Sometimes, it finishes the job. Each stage of getting something done is getting something done. An idea is as good as it is effective.

But efficacy isn’t always kind. Sometimes an idea is brutally effective, and while it might have a moment of acclaim for moving the needle in some way, it is quickly looked back upon with regret once it becomes clear how it did that. Indeed, a long career in American politics is a minefield of post-facto ideological regret. Political expediency, especially, is the sort of “effectiveness” that often works against an idea as time passes, as the dust settles and reveals all the people who were left behind or hurt by it. The undertow of a good idea can often be stronger than its visible wave. So, a good idea must also be a compassionate one. It must be humane. It considers all effects and especially those ancillary ones that work their way down to the individual person.

Novelty, efficacy, and humanity.

Surely a rubric of good ideas could be more robust. But novelty, efficacy, and humanity — in that order — seem to be, at least, the necessary components. They work together and, in logical order, hold one another accountable. An idea is good if it is novel and effective and humane. If an idea is not proven to be all of those things, then it is not a good idea.

Politicians think about this stuff. I know they do. But they clearly disagree on the best recipe.

On the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Bernie Sanders stood before the delegation and — after again conceding the race and endorsing Hillary Clinton (he did this already, of course, two weeks prior on Tuesday, July 12, though the media seems to forget that) — tried to encourage those who supported him by reviewing the many ideas which, because of him and them, have become a part of the Democratic party’s agenda. As he spoke, a supporter standing near the stage, with tears streaming down her face, screamed, “It’s not enough!”

Some people are with her. They don’t want a compromise. They want the full-Bernie agenda. Other people say they should take what they can get and stop booing. You know, I think everyone is right, contradictory as that may sound.

When we want change, what we really want is the change to have happened. We don’t want the state of change, the process. We don’t want the beginning or the middle. We don’t want to wait. We want it done. Impatience almost seems an unfairly harsh word to describe this, given that in most cases, what we want is good. Can there be such a thing as righteous impatience? I think so, provided we manage it. It seems to me that if such a thing exists, it is something we should be free to feel, but not free to indulge. Do I want to be a better man? Wiser than I am now? With more to offer those I love? Yes, I do. Is that a worthy desire? Absolutely! Do I want that now? Yes, I do. Is my yearning for that sometimes painful? Yes, it is. Is that impatience? By its very definition, yes. But do I have a right to stamp my foot and demand the universe bend around me? No. Righteous impatience cannot become intransigence. The greatest change is that worth working and waiting for.

That, of course, is a philosophy of change. Not the change that happens to us — one needn’t bother with a philosophy of change when it comes to the force majeure — but the change we make happen. As President Obama said as he concluded his speech at the Democratic Convention, “We don’t fear the future, we shape it.” Leading up to that conclusion was a deliberate case for a political philosophy of change that is, at its core, pragmatic: There is no separation between the value of an idea and the nature of its effects. An idea must be tried, applied and survived; it must meet the three-part rubric of novelty, efficacy, and humanity. If this is true, than the greater conclusion is one that applies to all members of a Democracy; all are operatives and all are beneficiaries. Again, President Obama put it well when he argued why Hillary Clinton’s political philosophy qualifies her to be our next President:

“Look, Hillary’s got her share of critics. She’s been caricatured by the right and by some folks on the left; accused of everything you can imagine — and some things you can’t. But she knows that’s what happens when you’re under a microscope for 40 years. She knows she’s made mistakes, just like I have; just like we all do. That’s what happens when we try. That’s what happens when you’re the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described — not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone ’who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs…[but] who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement…Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. She’s been there for us — even if we haven’t always noticed. And if you’re serious about our democracy, you can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue. You’ve got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn’t a spectator sport. America isn’t about ‘yes he will.’ It’s about ‘yes we can.’ And we’re going to carry Hillary to victory this fall, because that’s what the moment demands.”

Wrapped up in President Obama’s case is the sad reality that, my god, we expect too much of our leaders — to be greater than we are, almost to the point of perfection, while also just enough like us to pass the “beer test” — that it often obscures our understanding and appreciation for what they actually do. He’s saying that there is no vision without action, and that both are kept from perfection by us. And yet, without us, they are stuck in the Platonic realm, beautiful and impotent. Focusing only on the perfect vision creates action that, by my rubric, lets humanity down: upheaval. It’s the mistaken idea that change requires destruction. Similarly, focusing only on action would also be damaging, in a daily-dumpster-fire kind of way. But with both in balance, you get evolution, not revolution. Deliberate, coordinated change that is as ideologically bold and as operationally gentle as it can be. President Obama is saying that now is a moment for that kind of change, and that participation is how ideas turn into action.

We’ve been fortunate to have the last 8 years with a President like Barack Obama. He entered the White House with a “change” mandate, and even that, coming after a particularly dark 8 years, wasn’t an upheaval. As much as I admire President Obama, he wasn’t able to wrest power away from the military and intelligence complex as much as I would have hoped. But in so many areas, there has been change. Now is not a moment for upheaval. It’s a moment to maintain stability and the momentum of change that began in 2008. With that momentum came the integration of many ideas that, even just 8 years ago, would have been hard to imagine. President Obama is saying, let’s not tear it all down. Let’s keep it going.

Now, many of the most radical ideas we’ve heard over the course of this election year are — when it comes to novelty, efficacy, and humanity — 2-out-3’s. They’re novel and compassionate; aimed squarely at some of our biggest problems. In fact, the nature of the policy debates we’re having now is so profoundly different from in years past not just because the proposed solutions are novel, but because the problems are finally being seen in a new way. But the question of efficacy remains. Yes, the diagnosis is correct. But is the treatment? Can it actually be done? The policy proposals of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been rigorously scrutinized, debated, and analyzed, and I am persuaded that, when it comes to the Movement — the upheaval of Bernie Sanders’s proposals — the answer is no. But, that many of the solutions proposed by Bernie Sanders fail the efficacy test does not denude them of their value, nor, more importantly, the power and value of his unique point of view. That an opportunity to shift the “ideology” of the Democratic party to the left has emerged, and that an outsider to that party — a Socialist — took advantage of it, and that many people, partisan and not, have been energized by it are all just the plot of the story we are living. Could it have happened at another time, with another person at the center, with different events surrounding it all? Yes. No. Maybe. All of the above. Could it have happened without the last 8 years under Obama? Probably not. But what is important is the meaning of it all. America is changing. Whether or not all Americans want that, or whether all Americans can agree on the scope of that change, is irrelevant. America is changing, and the nature of the problems a Presidential candidate must address is changing, too. Bernie Sanders forced a necessary reckoning with them, as they are. I’m grateful for that, as should be anyone who calls themselves progressive.

And yet, in the words of Bernie’s weeping supporter, it’s not enough! We are righteously impatient! And that is why we must act.

Sometime last year I took the ISideWith.com test, which uses a fairly long questionnaire to assess how your beliefs align with the Presidential candidates. At the time, I wasn’t surprised to find that my strongest alignment was with Bernie Sanders. Nor was I surprised to see that I aligned with other candidates. I had a fairly close alignment with Jill Stein. On some issues, I was even aligned with Rand Paul! And yes, my alignment with Hillary Clinton was pretty good, too. If I remember correctly, it was somewhere around 80-85%. The thing is, I would never have voted for Bernie Sanders. Even then. An assessment like ISideWith measures your alignment with a candidate based upon what I call “in a vacuum” issues, as in, what should be done about this particular thing? or, how should things be in relation to this idea? But, it doesn’t measure your alignment with a candidate’s philosophy of change. It doesn’t measure your stomach for radical upheaval versus your preference for a steadier, consensus-based evolution. That’s why I might agree most with Bernie Sanders in a vacuum, but Hillary Clinton in the real world. She just has much more of a command of how a vision is going to get done than he does, as evidenced by the detail with which both candidates documented their plans and the survival rate of each under critical scrutiny. And, as I actually listened to her over the last year, and heard her words and intentions change as she listened to others — which is, if you ask me, entirely the point of a primary campaign and not “flip-flopping” or shilling for political expediency, but then again, I’m trying to be as un-cynical about this as I can — it became clear to me that she is uniquely interested in using the office of the Presidency as a listening post and a base-command for consensus building. That, I believe, is truly her style. She wants to hear out the public and use her power and influence to serve them. That seems to be her vision, more than a specific “revolutionary” point of view. Society needs both — both the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton approaches — but I’m persuaded that one is better applied in the office of the Presidency than the other. I want an integrator this time around. But no integrator is very effective without having pressure applied by a visionary.

I’ve gone on too long. But, my challenge to you is this: Will you vote for the person you truly believe would be the best President, or will you vote for the ideas she represents? If it’s the former, then maybe we agree, and maybe we don’t. But let’s still be friends, either way. If it’s the latter, let me apply just a little bit more pressure. If you’re voting for ideas at the Presidential level, then I think you’re tossing your penny into the Pacific at high tide. Ideological votes, in my opinion, are best leveraged down-ballot. In fact, the best way to get us out of two-party gridlock is to vote for third-party candidates down-ballot, so that parties other than the Democratic and Republican parties can grow and mature and stand a chance at the national level. But in a Presidential election, ideological votes can be truly wasteful. Two things can happen with such a President, should she be elected: She can be an ideologue and get little to nothing done from her seat, or she can integrate with the machine and make some progress. Some would say that the former is more pure. And some might say that the latter is a compromise to integrity. But I say that purity exists only in a vacuum, and I’d just rather see some things get done.

Recent Tabs

Climate change melts Russian tundra, exposing long-dormant bacteria and killing people and livestock. “I spent the weekend playing Pokemon Go but the pokemon were books and my phone was my eyes and the gym was my local indie and i am alone.” Farmbot, humanity’s first open-source farming machine. This is a self-folding origami robot. 74 books Borges thinks you should read. 6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new depressing study says. These surfaces adapt to what is on and around them, which is pretty strange, actually. Well, this might be the coolest thing ever. If not the noisiest. “…there is only so much beauty I can take in before I start to wonder about where the dirt is…” This handmade, room-sized computer can play Tetris. “…the rest of you will have to just assume that the internet has always been a tire fire with small pockets of civility…” This is what his life is now.

Written by Christopher Butler on July 30, 2016,   In Essays

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